It was an unlikely spot for a metal epiphany, the gentle lapping of the Härsjon lake against the shingle and the heady scent of Swedish pine on the air. Mattias IA Eklundh‘s Freak Guitar Camp attracts ambitious guitarists from Scandinavia and beyond, but back in 2010, one odd couple stuck out.Pär-Jörgen Pärson and Hans-Olov Öberg were twice the age of everyone else encamped to perfect their picking, tapping and riffing, but the VC and his investment-banker-turned-crime-writer accomplice had struck upon an idea: Can heavy metal be a metaphor for business? And how far could that metaphor go?
Breaking the Law!
Three years on and the pair have written Heavy Metal Management, a suitably monochrome alternative management bible complete with requisite gory photos of the ‘uncompromising’ Nifelheim, ‘epic’ Motley Crue and those masters of satanic symbolism, Watain. The Wealth of Nations it is not, but it is an entertainingly extended metaphor that has definitely struck a chord with the startup community; it was Sweden’s best-selling book in December, and sold 10,000 Swedish-language ebooks in the first two weeks of January alone.
“Apart from the number of the beast – 666 – Heavy Metal Management is never about numbers. Did you ever hear a rock star talk about the key success factor being ‘focus on shareholder value creation’? We didn’t think so. In short, heavy metal management is all about doing your thing to the fullest, without looking in any other direction. We will prove that there are virtuous cycles also in Hell. In corporate lingo it’s called ‘the art of building sustainable long term customer relationships’ or something totally lame like that…”
Bad to the Bone!
The book makes most sense when it talks about storytelling, finding the right perspective to make that story appeal to people.
“Take the example of the investment company that almost never sells its portfolio companies, that only invests in companies the CEO (who by the way is way over 80 years old) understands really well (things like insurance agencies) and a company that never plays stock market dynamics by doing things like stock splits to make shares accessible to the wider public that can’t afford to fork up $130,000 for one share…”
Despite all that, Warren Buffet’s Berkshire Hathaway is one of the most admired companies in the world, driven by the skillful, articulate storytelling that describes the inner workings of the companies he invests in.
From BH’s 2011 report: “We found that if you advertise an interest in buying collies, a lot of people will call hoping to sell you their cocker spaniels. A line from a country song expresses our feeling about new ventures, turnarounds or auction-like sales: ‘When the phone don’t ring, you’ll know it’s me.'”
Highway to Hell!
Pärson is a seasoned European VC in Europe, thrashing out a series of major deals to sit on the boards of Spotify, Russian classifieds site Avito and ad tool Videoplaza, but he also fronts Frank Xerox and the Perfect Copies; covers, and a decent voice. After years in the business world, he could be forgiven for craving some fun – and a decent soundtrack. But talking to him, it’s clear that beneath the virtual leather codpiece and war paint he’s deadly seriously about his heavy metal methodology.
“Be epic. Be a master. Be instinctive. Be sensory. Be forever. Be total.”
Pärson and Öberg started banging the drum for their new business strategy with that ‘pentagram of six’; the framework that a startup needs a fantastic story and a vision, mastery of its craft and must ‘trigger basic human instincts’. Is it surprising that an investor with a background at McKinsey has ditched the analytical approach?
An emotional connection between the employees, the company and its customers, Pärson explains, is now critical.
“We were singing the praises of the rational, methodical part of ourselves in analysing the businesses we were seeing. But look deep into the findings and successful companies are anything but analytical – they appeal to us emotionally. That’s why they are successful at hiring people, why people with the same mindset come to work for them and how they attract customers. That emotional connection binds together.”
That connection should be sensorially appealing, and from a team that is committed and with a long-term vision, according to Heavy Metal Management. So far, so sensible. Elsewhere, wisdom of the crowds becomes ‘wisdom of motherfuckers going apeshit’, virality is actually ‘spreading the pestilence’ (‘invented’, we learn, by Metallica’s Lars Ulrich who distributed mix tapes of local talent) while the line up is crucial. The riff master pushes the product forward, the frontman engages with the crowd, the money man takes care of the business and the steady bass holds the team together.
“There is the potential for conflict between joint creative, commercial and ego-oriented objectives … The issues get particularly difficult to manage when several people compete for the same role within the band, like in the case of the conflict between Dave Mustaine and James Hetfield during the very first years of Metallica. Dave is a brilliant songwriter and exhilarating guitar player with frontman qualities, but he was constantly stepping on James and Lars’s toes. They wouldn’t allow Mustaine to take the frontman role. We should be happy that Mustaine eventually got fired from Metallica because it gave the world Megadeth …”
Heavy Metal Management is massively good fun, and it’s not hard to see why it has proved so popular with a new generation of entrepreneurs hungry for a new language for their business strategy. It’s music to their ears, epitomizing the archetypal work hard/play hard ethos, the personal commitment, the experimentation and a kind of tribal recognition and respect.
Run to the Hills!
The metaphor works so well it even extends as far as sexism (both casual and explicit), drugs (the notorious excesses of the tech party scene) and bad taste. Pärson doesn’t even attempt to defend the sexism or the parties, but is pretty animated as he defends the bad taste. “It’s about cultural codes and connections, and that can’t be a bad thing,” he said. “If you want to create some reaction, like the lead singer of Nifelheim, it’s more theatre than bad taste.”
“Working with startups means working with people who are doing something profound, and they put enormous personal and financial commitment into that. That level of energy is rewarding to be around, and it’s intellectually stimulating and challenging.”
Let us Slay!
The next big industry to be turned up to 11 will be mobile, says Pärson. Just as the offline players of the 90s were pushed out by the creative disruption of the new online players, so will online be pushed aside by mobile. “We meet companies who were super hot three years ago, but are now losing momentum online and their ad revenue is shrinking. It’s a new phase of creative destruction.”
If you’re feeling suitably inspired and hell bent for leather, and are in need of some Bruce Dickinson to quote at your next board meeting, Heavy Metal Management is out in the UK in late March.
For those about to rock, we salute you!!
This article originally appeared on guardian.co.uk
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